Digital education inspires teens from rural Armenia to embrace technology
Four years ago, 17-year-old Robert Danielyan took a class that changed his life.
The class was in digital animation and the first time Robert saw his drawings digitized, he was hooked.
“I drew pictures by hand, which we later digitized. From that day on, my life changed. I started trying in different directions: programming, design, robotics,” he says.
The only downside to the classes, which are a free service provided by the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Gyumri, Armenia, was that they were 35 kilometers from Ashotsk, the village where Robert lives.
A recent World Bank study found that 96 percent of Armenia has access to the internet. But despite the wide-scale availability, young people in rural communities have fewer opportunities to learn high-tech skills, like programming and robotics.
Armat Engineering Laboratories, and the Tumo Center are trying to change that by offering free classes to children in rural communities.
Startup TakeAr has been expanding its rural offerings by working with specialists. For instance, recent high school graduate Mher Israelyan lives in the tiny hamlet of Jujevan, population 407. His community is near the Azerbaijani border. But his mentor, the co-founder of TakeAr, lives in Armenia’s Aragatsotn Region, across the country.
The distance and lack of person-to-person contact has not hindered Mher from studying several programming languages and working with peers. Together they even won a grant to build a tourism app.Through programming, Mher also earned his first paycheck (about $200).
“I just can't imagine my life without a computer now," says Mher, who wants to get his university degree in programming. He has already learned several programming languages, including Rhinoceros 3D, Java, HTML and CSS.
After he graduates, Mher wants to open his own technology center in his village, so other children from his community can learn programming and other skills, as well.
He notes that slowly, education centers are adapting to help rural communities learn about technology, even if they do not have access to the internet or a computer at home.
The trend is important, notes Artur Papyan, the founder of CyberHUB and an IT consultant.
“Armenia needs to reach out to every village corner and look for talent, if it wants to maintain its current position as a regional IT powerhouse,” he says.
“The country is already facing a severe shortage of skilled IT workers. And while the children in Yerevan are spoiled by a wealth of opportunities, youngsters in the remote areas have everything to gain from such projects.”
Vigen Khachatryan, an IT specialist who advises Mher as part of the TakeAR program, says the startup is planning to expand its digital courses.
“We are creating virtual school labs, such as a biology lab, where organs can be examined in 3D / digital,” he says. “Such projects lead to decentralization, regional development and more integration, so we believe startups' projects in the regions are very important.”
For Robert, the pupil at the Tumo Center in Gyumri, the free courses led to a platform on the website of Armenia’s public radio station. From his tiny village of Ashotsk, Robert vlogs about issues that concern the community. A recent vlog about skiing helped the community increase its profile as a winter tourism destination, he said.
To attend the Tumo Center classes, sometimes Robert has to hitchhike but he says the skills he is learning make it worth the extra effort to find a ride.
“The 21st century is a digital age. People use digital technologies everywhere in their lives, and everyone should understand at least half of these technologies," he says, adding that he also hopes to open a local IT center in his community so more people can have access to the skills.
His friend Knarik Poghosyan has also been attending the Tumo Center for four years. She says the beauty of technology is that things like gender or geography are no longer obstacles.
"If you want to master some field, all you need is the desire to work. Even if you are far from programming, you can learn, regardless of your social class, how old you are or where you live. It is very important that Tumo provides equal opportunities for everyone," she says, adding that technology can serve as a great equalizer.
"Women play a big role in this field, girls can be just as good programmers as boys, they can break stereotypes. There is a completely different environment inside Tumo, where everyone shows their potential and creates equality."